Patriots

Last of his kind? It’ll be a while before we see another Gronk

Last of his kind? It’ll be a while before we see another Gronk

ATLANTA -- The week leading up to the Super Bowl is often a time when a lot of ink, a lot of air and a lot of Internet space is spent on the topic of legacy. 

Lord knows, we’ve done our fair share, such as this and this. 

Rob Gronkowski’s legacy is among the most fascinating of a historically fascinating group, and it’s worth considering given that the potential for retirement — and Super Bowl LIII being his final game — looms. 

He is, without a doubt, the greatest tight end of his era. The story of the NFL can hardly be told without referencing his dominance over the better part of the past decade. 

Still, did he change the game? Whenever he does retire, will we be able to look at the state of his position and say that it was drastically altered because of him?

The fact that it’s hard to say may speak to just how unique Gronkowski is. Could he truly change the game if his skill set is nearly impossible to replicate?

Patriots right end Stephen Anderson, 26, has watched Gronkowski for years and likes to define himself as a hybrid player at his position. Like Gronkowski, he feels as though he can play in the run and pass games. It’s the level to which Gronkowski does both, though, that makes him unique. 

“You have tight ends these days that are mainly receivers. You have tight ends that are mainly blockers,” Anderson said. “But when he came into the league, even though it was trending towards more receivers, like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz — he is the last of the old-school tight ends that can do both. 

“He's one that not only does both but does it at top-of-the-league levels. Running routes. Catching. Blocking. There's not too many tight ends in the game that have that skill set that are the best in the league as a tight end. Just watching that, watching that at this point in his career is really amazing. The catches he makes, the blocks he makes, his football IQ and savvy. It’s really fun watching and learning from him.”

And Anderson has caught Gronkowski on a relatively down year. He’s dealt with back and ankle issues off and on throughout the season and didn’t approach the statistical heights he did when he was a First Team All-Pro in 2017 for the fourth time. 

Yet he’s been part of what has driven the Patriots offensively even as his receiving prowess has been diminished in spurts. As the Patriots have morphed into more of a run-heavy offense, Gronkowski has arguably been their best blocker on a team that features powerful run-game players in Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown. 

“I think that's what makes him him,” swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle said. “That's what makes him Gronk. Hell of a player. He can put his hand in the dirt and mix it up with guys. Obviously, he catches a lot of passes and makes some plays like that too. There's not a whole bunch of guys in this league that can do that. That just shows you how much work he puts in and how good he's been throughout his career. 

“I think of him as a glorified O-lineman. Obviously, he's a little more athletic than us, but he'll definitely mix it up. We definitely enjoy and appreciate guys laying it on the line just like we do every play.”

“He’s such a dynamic all-around tight end,” James Develin said. “He can block. He can run routes. He's good with the ball in his hands. Will there be another one? I don't know.“

There are tight ends in the league with Gronkowski’s frame. There are tight ends in the league who are faster. There are tight ends in the league with tremendous hands. But Gronkowski, even now in his ninth season, still possesses a rare blend of those qualities. 

Teammates agreed he’s rare enough that even if there will someday be another player with a similar skill set, it’s not happening any time soon. 

“I mean, I feel like you watch high school sports, these kids are way better athletes than guys like me born in the late-80s,” Devin McCourty said. “I wouldn't be surprised just seeing how athletic guys are and what they're able to do. Look at big Trent [Brown] on our team. He showed us a video back during the season of him doing dunks and stuff...I wouldn't be surprised [to see another Gronk type]. But it might take a while. He's a pretty good player.”

“I hope not, [but] there probably will be,” Kyle Van Noy said. “I think more players are in college starting to be more like him. He's kind of changed the game. He's one of a kind though. I don’t think you'll see someone as energetic and humorous as that guy. He can light up a room.”

“I can't predict the future,” Develin said. “The game is kind of always evolving and taking different paths. But just as a person alone, I don't know if you're ever going to find another Gronk. He's just such a fun guy to be around, a fun guy to work with. I'm really happy I've been able to work with him the past seven years.”

Though it’s unclear Gronkowski himself has been a catalyst for the changing nature of the position. Again, his individual talents make that hard to gauge. But there’s no denying the position has changed. He’s seen it. He’s been a part of that change, and he’s executed the varied receiving responsibilities that now accompany the modern tight end role as well as anyone. 

“Since I was a rookie til now, the tight end position has evolved a little bit,” he said this week. “In that case, I mean players splitting out wide, tight ends splitting out in the slot, tight ends going one-on-one outside. Back in the heyday you really didn't see that that much. They were always lined up in the backfield or on the wing. To see tight ends now be able to line up all over the field, it's definitely changed the game.”

Gronkowski looked as healthy as he’s looked since Week 1 back in the AFC title game and his myriad abilities could very well be on display once again against the Rams. If the Patriots want to run out of heavy packages, he can move bodies at the point of attack. If they want to run him down the seam to stress Wade Phillips’ single-high safety coverages, he’ll garner significant attention. If LA plays man-to-man, the Patriots could use Gronkowski’s size outside the numbers to win jump balls against linebackers or safeties. 

“To me, he has made me the player I am,” Patrick Chung said. “I get to go against him every day for the last eight, nine years. So, he’s definitely made me better, period. So, I actually need to thank him. Personally, that’s how I feel about him. And we’ve been grinding it out. There are days we don’t want to grind it out, and we’re going to grind it out. So, much love to him. Thank you.”

“I mean, the guy’s so hard to cover,” McCourty said. “I think a lot of people think of tight ends – so tough in the red area, making plays – but you watch him down the field, crossing routes, catching the ball for five yards, breaking two tackles. 

“I think just the way you look at his off-the-field of grinding through injuries, that’s how he plays. I think it showed up [in Kansas City] when we needed him the most, making big catches, making big plays. I think for me, it’s just cool – every time I’m asked about him, we came in the same year and to watch both of us kind of grow in this organization and become leaders, both be captains at times. You get to kind of be right next to a guy and see him grow, and obviously for me to watch what he’s been able to, best tight end in football for years. That’s not easy to do.” 

It’s why there may not be another like him.

“I don't know,” Rex Burkhead said. “It's gonna be tough. I've never seen anyone as big as he is run as well as he can and with the hands he has. You've seen him make some unbelievable one-handed catches, catches it right off the turf as well. And he's 6-foot-8. It's impressive. Unbelievable player. the best tight end I've ever seen.”

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Julian Edelman sings his heart out in tough to listen to karaoke session

Julian Edelman sings his heart out in tough to listen to karaoke session

Julian Edelman can do a lot of things. He can catch passes, win Super Bowls, and take home Super Bowl MVPs.

One thing he can't do as well? Sing.

Edelman posted several videos of himself on Instagram recently, jamming out and singing along to classic songs like "Hotel California" and "Jukebox Hero." You can see the results of that below, as captured by NESN's Dakota Randall.

Hey, at least he's having fun, right?

We'll give Edelman an A for effort and putting himself out there. But it doesn't seem that a singing career will be in the cards once he retires from the NFL.

Curran: Ja'Whaun Bentley can help the Patriots' defense to level up>>>

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Sunday Notes: Ja'Whaun Bentley may be the key to the Patriots defense leveling up

Sunday Notes: Ja'Whaun Bentley may be the key to the Patriots defense leveling up

Analysis of the Patriots this offseason has focused mainly on what they don’t have and how/when they will get it.

Makes sense. When it’s time to shop and stock time, focus is on the things you need, not what you already have.

But while the offense is being retooled and redesigned, the Patriots defense – its strong suit in the 2018 playoffs – has the potential to be even better in 2019. And that’s even with the departure of Trey Flowers and three key defensive coaches – Brian Flores, Josh Boyer and Brendan Daly.

The key to the Patriots leveling up? It could be second-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. Why Bentley ahead of newly-acquired players like Michael Bennett, Jamie Collins or Mike Pennel or mainstays like Donta Hightower, Stephon Gilmore or Devin McCourty?

Because of the domino effect a healthy Bentley could have on the rest of the defense beginning with Dont’a Hightower.

The smarts and versatility Hightower brings in a uniquely fast and powerful package make him the player that the Patriots hoped they were getting when they signed Adalius Thomas more than a decade ago.

In 2016, Hightower’s value as an edge defender was tapped in the final five games of that championship season when he went from taking 22 percent of his snaps on the edge to 52. A play you may remember from his time there? His strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl that made America sit up straight and say, “They really are going to do this, aren’t they?”

In 2017, Hightower was being readied for a bigger role on the edge (great insight on the move at that time from Pats Pulpit) but missed the first couple of games with a sprained knee. The Patriots defense was a confused shambles during his absence and – when he got back – he was back at inside linebacker. The improvement was drastic. But a torn pec in Week 5 cost Hightower the rest of the season and the New England defense was never as trustworthy after that.

Same thing last season. Hightower, who’d trained differently in the 2018 offseason and showed up more streamlined, was in for a bigger role on the edge. He began the season there and Bentley, a rookie from Purdue, was in the middle with the “green dot” as the lead communicator for the defense.

The Patriots opened 1-2, Bentley tore his pec, Hightower moved back to the middle, took over communication and things got better. Again. He capped the year with an MVP-worthy performance in the Super Bowl when he had a sack off the edge, another lined when he was lined up at defensive tackle and a pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff when he exploded through the Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein.

Kyle Van Noy’s eye-opening performance in 2018 came in part because he was able to play more freely with a PhD in linebacking next to him.

So, back to Bentley. He’s not going to approach Hightower’s level of institutional knowledge. But if he can get enough of it right, Hightower is then freed up to be in different spots. The likelihood of that happening? High. Bentley’s style is reminiscent of another No. 51, Jerod Mayo. With Mayo now coaching linebackers, Bentley becomes his pet project. Van Noy has another year of smarts and production under him and the return of Jamie Collins means the Patriots have two guys that can deal with the run, cover adequately and rush the passer while Bentley and Elandon Roberts take over as the guys relied on to deal with grinding running games.

Meanwhile, Hightower is continuing to train for speed. He’s now about 20 pounds lighter than the 270 pounds he carried when he was drafted so obviously, the intention is to have him spend less time in the middle. If Bentley can hold it down, a defense that closed last year holding the explosive Rams to just a field goal in Super Bowl 53 could be even better this year.

*****

It’s smart to keep an eye on the Kyle Rudolph situation in Minnesota. It’s devolved in the few weeks since the draft since the cash-strapped Vikings and the 29-year-old tight end hit an impasse. Rudolph is due $7.625 in salary. Asked last week if he’d consider a pay cut, his answer was, “No way. I’m too young for that.” That is the correct response for a player who’s caught 204 passes for 18 touchdowns the past three seasons with Case Keenum, Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford throwing to him.

If the Patriots were to trade for Rudolph, they have to create space. And this could create urgency to get Tom Brady’s contract restructure done so that his $27M cap hit comes down and there’s room to fit Rudolph.

Even though the Patriots whiffed on the tight end they went after hardest to replace Rob Gronkowski – Jared Cook – they’ve done a good job whipping bodies at the spot since with Matt LaCosse, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Benjamin Watson. Rudolph is a different level player, though, in terms of production and durability.

Would trading for him mean one of the other tight ends would be immediately cut loose? And would Rudolph’s addition mean a post-Thanksgiving return by Gronk would be less likely (though I’m not sure it’s likely right now)?

If the Patriots do make that move, it would be bad news for the AFC.

*****

It has to be encouraging for the Patriots to see wide receiver Demaryius Thomas able to build some straight-line speed as he works back from his Achilles injury. But even if he’s trending upward now, the process of getting back to full speed is still just beginning

Thomas will almost certainly start training camp on the PUP list and – even if he is able to compete by early September – he probably won’t be full speed and confident for another two months based on medical sources I’ve spoken with. So the decision will be whether activating a less-than 100 percent version of Thomas in September is necessary or whether the Patriots and Thomas will choose to wait. I’d bet on the latter.

*****

The NFL is putting together some interesting lists for the league’s 100th anniversary and I’m one of the 50 voters enlisted to help choose the winners. Huge honor. The categories are Greatest Play; Greatest Teams; Greatest Games; Game Changers; and Greatest Characters. The process begins with Greatest Plays. We are charged with logging on to a website, reviewing 100 plays and choosing the top 50. We’re trying to establish how much I can legally share with you all while going through the process so stay tuned because I love input.

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